Monday, May 31, 2010

New Otello premiered in Berlin: Kriegenburg and Harteros rocked -- Cura and Lucic were great too!

Otello, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 30 2010

Conductor Patrick Summers
Director Andreas Kriegenburg

Otello José Cura
Iago Zeljko Lucic
Cassio Yosep Kang
Roderigo Gregory Warren
Lodovico Hyung-Wook Lee
Montano Jörn Schümann
Desdemona Anja Harteros
Emilia Liane Keegan

The expectations were high, i.e. proportional to the standards by which this project --new production of Otello-- has been initiated.  To find a director who proved to be excellent and yet someone who didn't produce zillions of shows to make his micro-universe recognizable in all corners of the Globe, it is hard. You may take a risk and confide a job to a young director but the stakes were really high:  economy is tight,  you need someone fresh in the world of opera, yet experimented enough & capable to create an event.

Andreas Kriegenburg is a rare director to satisfy all these constraints. Even if he's very well known in theatrical circles, he exercised his talent in an opera only three times thus far: twice in his native Magdeburg, and once in Munich -- last year when he slammed the opera-world by delivering one of the most memorable productions of Wozzeck ever. That last success eventually earned him a flattering proposal by the Bayrische Staatsoper to stage their new production of The Ring of the Niebelung, which is scheduled to begin in 2012 [obviously in Munich].

So, Kriegenburg was a cherry-picked director, and with a very good DOB (Deutsche Oper Berlin) orchestra, plus arguably the world's best chorus, the artistic direction of the DOB provided a good conditions for their second big production this year [Rienzi being the first one].  To me  Otello is by far the most accomplished work by Verdi (modulo Falstaff!). The action is not annoyingly suspended and the recitatives are reduced to minimum. Musically it's excellent and the maturity of Verdi shows -- he didn't have to go for cheap effects and loads of tunes to seduce the public -- he was famous and his every opera was bound to be a success.

To me this is one of the best shows I've seen at the DOB. I'd put it up there, together with the Aegyptische Helena [dir Marelli] and Rienzi [dir Stolzl]. Everything was simply excellent: the stage, the action/theater, the orchestra was exceptionally inspired, all the singers were brilliant, and the chorus was mind-blowing.

Anja Harteros confirms once again that she is the best soprano in this spectrum of roles. I would even go beyond that statement and claim that right now Anja Harteros is the best singer, all categories combined.
Her voice is round and beautiful. She sings everything with such a disarming easiness which makes you admire her more and more with each time you listen to her live-singing again. Her smashing Elsa [Lohengrin] is nowadays a reference -- she's set that standard in Munich, where she stole the show that was otherwise ultra-focused on Jonas Kaufmann (who was brilliant too, but far-far below Anja's degree of  awesomeness)!
This Desdemona is at that level too. Jaw-dropping, brilliant, fantastic, freakincredible... [I run out of compliments.] Every sound that woman produced last night was distinctly beautiful. You have an impression that she's never pushing her voice. Just amazing!
Her recordings are never as good as her live singing, most probably because her voice is richer than the bidimensional --even if edited-- recording could capture. I say that to encourage you to --if you ever get a chance to listen to Anja singing live-- go and feel that uniqueness by yourselves. You may not appreciate her standard immediately, but after you listened to her once, all the other singers will sound to you less good than they did before, and when you listen to Anja again you'll realize how wonderful she is...
Last night she was scenically and vocally perfect. The crowd went nuts shouting BRAVA!
Her major moment was of course during The Willow Song and Ave Maria -- in short, a historical performance by this mighty lady.  

José Cura had ups and downs in his career, but when he puts his heart and his soul in the character he's supposed to incarnate,  he indeed does it with all his heart and guts, without retaining anything. His voice was at his best last night, and didn't get tired at any point of the evening. I usually complain about his tendency to overact, which never worked with me outside of the verismo repertoire [which, obviously, is not my favorite repertoire ;)]. I don't know if Kriegenburg toned him down, but even scenically he was superb last night. I never saw him neither vocally nor scenically that good. A huge BRAVO-BRAVISSIMO to him too!  

Zeljko Lucic is only getting better with age. A big guy who can sing big, who possesses a vocal tenderness,  but who's a perfect operatic villain character. His voice is rich, still sounding youngish (!) but very powerful. Listen to him for 10 minutes or so and you gotta develop some kind of spontaneous respect to that man. His acting was very good, his singing awesome -- BRAVISSIMO!  

Patrick Summers is quite a famous conductor in the US [by the way, he's Music director of the Houston Grand Opera], but not as much in Europe, where he performs only rarely. Last night he showed how good he really is. The DOB Orchestra is tuned to perfection for the premiere and the chorus is at its usual best, but Patrick should be credited for making the whole package sound wonderfully homogenous and compact, yet emphasizing  all the nuances of the score.

Yosep Kang and Liane Keegan were very good too.

Now what about the staging? Kriegenburg in his interview said he believes the love provides disorder (both privately and socially) whereas jealousy and irrational destructive behavior tend to return the things to the "ordered" state at the origin [before the changes occurred], which - of course - is impossible [it's thermodynamics ;) ]. 

So, Kriegenburg decided to focus onto the love-story of Otello but did not neglect the social dimension of libretto. He clearly refused to play the racial card: Otello is not the only black guy on the stage. This is because Kriegenburg and his team placed the action in a refugee camp [c.f. photo above] which hosts many refugees including many Africans who fled violence and civil wars on their continent to come to the shores of Cyprus. Life in a refugee camp is violent, degrading, hard -- the war is not only about the warriors and casualties, it's also about refugees who're deprived of humanistic dimension... In that environment Kriegenburg unfold the story of Otello as you know it. There are very many details, many stories happening in the background, in the scaffolding structure [c.f. pic above] where the refugees live; you could see the facilities that they all share (sinks and mirrors),  women who must cope with lack of privacy at every level... one of them begins to dance/daydream, and a parallel story/dance to that between Desdemona and Otello happens right in front of that sink/mirror: when Otello threatens Desdemona, that woman's husband --who used to "tango" with her-- shows up and strangles her by putting a plastic bag over her head...

To hide Otello before Cassio came (in the last part of the show), Iago throws a handful of coins on the ground near Otello and the children from the camp came to pick up the coins but also to surround Otello, making him invisible to Cassio. At that distance Otello could listen to what Iago and Cassio were saying.

The intimate moments between Otello and Desdemona --including the opera's finale-- happens in their bedroom, totally opposite to the atmosphere of the refugee camp.

So how the folks present at the premiere  reacted last night? Split in two: there were many boos, but as many bravos (count my huge voice contributing substantially the second camp).
Why boos? I can see three reasons: (1) the action is transposed and the traditionalists reject it by definition [they are always the most vocal about their disapproval!]; (2) the night of the premiere is very special and it is a social happening: many peops show up to be seen and not really to enjoy opera ---> those folks do not like to be challenged. They want to be entertained, and if they're not they jeer; (3) in Germany, all the good shows are booed.
Andreas and his team looked a bit surprised by the boos. They are not used to the level of conservatism in the world of opera, so it's part of a learning process to them.
I believe the boos after a show like this should be taken as compliments: if nobody was disturbed that would mean your theater was tepid, irrelevant or "dead".

All in all, I loved the show. Contrary to my habits, this time I stayed at the after-premiere party. I took some pics there which I'll post sometimes during the week.

Ed: Just noticed that a set of 20 pics from the show appeared on the DOB web site. See here!

Cura, Herteros and Summers

Cura, Herteros and Lucic

entire crew: chorus, producers, singers

Andreas Kriegenburg

Schumann, Kang, Curra, Harteros, Lucic, Keegan, Lee

DOB chorus is a star!

Chorus of children were excellent too [some of them were pickpockets ;)]

William Spaulding -- responsible for such a great level of quality of the DOB chorus

Spaulding, Anja and a girl from the DOB Chorus


  1. I'm glad Cura was great last night as Otello... It's so hard to find a good Otello nowadays...

  2. He was definitely in super-form last night. I expected him to get tired and struggle through Act-4, but nothing of that sort happened -- he was really wonderful last night.

    Tonight la prima of Die Walküre ;)

  3. Hard to imagine seeing positive comments about Cura lately. In the two Stiffelio Met radio broadcasts I heard in January, he sounded so awful it had to be heard to be believed. Or, not even then.
    Glad you enjoyed it, here's hoping hew as just out of form a few months ago and is getting better.

  4. So looking forward to seeing this. I am flying in from NYC next Sunday (June 6)and will see the June 8 and 10 performances. I adore Harteros and glad she was SUPERB (as always).Thanks for the great review.

  5. Hey Ron! I hope Cura and Lucic will keep this ultra-high level of singing they showed at the premiere. Anja Harteros is always this good. The auditorium is humanly sized so you'll have your fix of good singing - I'm sure! Do let us know what you thought of the show ;)

  6. Anonymous - going to the prima I expected nothing and everything from Cura. Was it the night of the premiere or he wanted to prove that he still has it -- it's anybody's guess. The truth is - he was excellent, the role is difficult and he didn't show any fatigue in his voice in the last part of the show.

    If he wasn't this good, I most probably wouldn't say anything ;)

  7. Harteros, c'est vraiment terrible...Moi qui ne suis pas bon pour repérer les talents montants, je suis tombé sur le charme en l'entendant en Freia (!). Le charme, pour moi non plus, ne s'est pas atténué depuis... Freia, Elsa, Violetta, Mimi, Eva, Alcina, Fiordiligi...
    Kriegenburg a la particularité d'avoir commencé au théâtre -en DDR- par le côté technique (il a une formation de menuisier, je crois), ce qui peut justifier qu'il soit parfois un peu mal à l'aise face au monde du théâtre. En Allemagne, il est connu, mais pas universellement apprécié, il faut bien en avoir conscience.
    Par ailleurs, un de ses spectacles (Le procès d'après Kafka) est invité à Avignon cet été : très recommandable !

  8. Merci pour la partie Kriegenburg. Je ne pense pas que je pourrais aller à Avignon cet été (malheureusement). J'imagine que tu y iras -- l'année Marthaler à Avignon oblige. ;)

    J'ai lu pas mal d'articles sur Kriegenburg. A Berlin en ce moment il y a même un festival de ces spectacles (non-opératiques)

    Sur Anja Harteros je suis évidemment entièrement d'accord. C'est tout simplement incroyable ce qu'elle fait en ce moment. Là, ce qu'elle fait de ce rôle de Desdemona est très comparable a ce qu'elle a fait d'Elsa l'année passée à Munich. Époustouflant, imbattable... En plus elle est très low-key et très gentille.

  9. I saw the June 8 & 10th performances of OTELLO and just loved the musical side of the production: Principal singers/chorus/orchestra. I wasn't wild about the physical production or the director's concept...but the singers swept everything out of their way musically. Highest honors go to Harteros who was just superb as Desdemona. Cura and Lucic matched her in strength and the surrounding cast was excellent. A very enjoyable evening in the theatre...which I cannot say for the ARABELLA which I saw last night at the Deutsche Oper.

  10. Hey Ron! Arabella is not a good opera anyway. I'm glad you enjoyed Otello. Coming from the US you're not used to this kind of productions, and you don't look into details. If you stayed a little bit longer and had an opportunity to see the show again (and if we talked in between and you were mentally ready to be challenged!) I'm sure you'd start seeing wonderful things. ;) Not that I guarantee you'd have liked the production -- but it would have tickled your curiosity, that I'm pretty sure would be the case ;)

    Anja the world
    s best singer right now [OK, Joyce is very close too ;) ]

  11. I saw it twice and saw enough details that I liked and didn't like: Otello's ripping Desdemonda's handkerchief into pieces and then using it to bind her before killing her was masterful; the "couple" who danced and then the lover who put the plastic bag over the girl's head during the act 3 concertante was stupid beyond belief. The children hidding Otello in act 3 was good...but the throwing of paper at Cassio in act 1 was another stupid idea that went nowhere. It seemed that this director was trying to "fill every moment" with something going on; he needs to learn that "less is more"...and sometimes standing still works wonders (like Harteros in the beginning of act 4).
    Still I am very glad to have been there for this opera.

  12. Ron, I want to make sure you didn't get me wrong and my post wasn't meant (at all!) to be patronizing or condescending. What I was trying to tell is that we're all often enveloped in our habits and it takes some time to adjust to this kind of productions.

    Why did you thing that homicide was stupid beyond belief? I thought it was reflecting perfectly well the violence in the confined space. In the refugee center you have the concentration of all good and bad in human behavior, but since the conditions are extreme and the space confined, it all resurfaces fast and the violence is atrocious. Didn't Othello kill Desdemona for similar reason too?

  13. As I said before...less is more. We really do not need to see another homicide other than the one of Otello/Desdemona. In fact, I was in Tier 1 for Tues and in the Orchestra for Thurs. It was TOTALLY blocked in the Thurs perfomance...and someone next to me asked why the woman was dead (as we could not see it). Another bit of "business" that was totally unnecesaary for the opera.

  14. You wouldn't want to see the director sticking solely to what's written in the libretto?! That would completely kill the live theater and opera would die out.

    All that crowdedness and the violence that surges in such confined spaces, despite the overall tragedy, is to be described by all theatrical means and that one was one way to do it and I liked it :)

    But I understand you don't so there we go :)


  15. I saw Otello 10 June and can only say Cura is in technical trouble and knows it. He rewrites the music to get around the music , is wooden on stage and has a dry bark ofa vocal prduction. Liane Keegan has great vocal and arresting stage prowess conviction to the drama and plotting she witness between the protagonists, Cura should take note but obviously won't because he he caught up in his own illusion of being the 4th tenor.

  16. I saw this production tonight with a completely different cast, an I have to say what a superb piece of opera directing it is: perhaps at times a little busy, and I could have done without the interpretive dance (which to me really just seemed to be there to fill that corner! That said, at least it was only a few and not on a La Scala scale...)
    But so many memorable touches: the stunning moment of closing the curtains, a refugee child stroking Otello's head, Emilia with the tissues... and, while I most honestly say I don't know the singers - Frank Porretta, Ivan Inverardi, Michaela Kaune - beautifully and impressively sung!!